By on January 7, 2007

100_000622.jpgBuying a car from a reputable auction house is a “safe” way to add to your collection. Yes, you must compete against equally serious buyers, but auctioneers depend on repeat business for their survival; they don’t stay afloat by ripping people off. And there’s far more legal comeback on a going concern than an individual seller. But buying a collectible car privately can be just as rewarding and much cheaper— if you use common sense, basic psychology and due diligence. First, you gotta know where to look.

Swap meets are a car collector's happy hunting ground. Although these events are populated by shade tree restorers looking to buy or sell ancient intake manifolds, you’ll find plenty of owners with grandpa’s old something-or-other for sale. Pomona, California and Portland, Oregon host two of America’s biggest swap meets. John Sweeney, editor of Cruisin’ News, runs another huge swap meet at Nevada’s Hot August Nights event.

The east coast boasts legendary swap meets in Hershey and Carlisle, Pennsylvania. The Hershey event, known officially as the Antique Automobile Club of America (AACA) fall meet, began 51 years ago with the usual car club trappings. The event has grown to include roughly 10k vendor spaces spread out over several fields. Along with these mega-swap meets, there are plenty of regional congregations. 

100_0003222.jpgThere are two key differences between an auction and the car corral at a swap meet. First, you can drive the car– if it’s drivable– or have it thoroughly inspected by a captive expert. Second, you’re usually face-to-face with the person who restored the car, who’ll tell you every hernia, heartache and foible along the way.

It’s best to scout a car on day one, and then go home and research values via phone (to a restorer, dealer or experienced owner), internet (forums, eBay and auction sites) or various guides. The basic rules of engagement are the same as a Moroccan bazaar: there’s a posted price and there’s the price that takes something home. The savvy collector circles a desired car like a buzzard, waiting for the last hour of the last day of the meet, when prices drop. 

If your idea of a good time isn’t tromping through country fairgrounds or the soggy fields of Hershey PA or the old cattle stalls of Reno NV, try local car shows. That's because restoring cars is an addiction. Otherwise sensible enthusiasts spend thousands of hours and tens of thousands of dollars polishing automotive coal into antique diamonds. These cars will not, can not deliver anything like a reasonable return on their investment, and their owners know it.

100_0001222.jpgEven better (at least from the buyer’s point-of-view), the restorer’s insatiable need to tinker and escape the wife and kids means that the end of one project MUST be followed by the beginning of another. So when a restored car is ready for show, it’s ready for sale– even if the owner doesn't think so.

Liberating these owners from their machines is simple enough. Just fawn over their handiwork a bit, ask what they’re working on now, note the pain their face and then offer them cash. Alternatively, if you don’t know what you’re looking at, tell them you have a friend who loves that model and ask if you can both visit the car later. Take an expert with you for a second viewing. Go away again and THEN come back with an offer. Even if they don’t sell, you’ll have learned a great deal about the obscure object of your desire.

Collector car stores are also a good place to make your bones. As the owners of these establishments readily admit, selling old cars is as more avocation than vocation. Their combination of knowledge, experience and enthusiasm makes most (though not all) stores an excellent starting point for neophytes looking to become a patron of the automotive arts. Also, in stark contrast to the auctioneers credo (as is, where is), they’ll also try to set things straight, such as fixing badly restored panels or swapping out inappropriate mechanical additions.

100_0004.jpgMuch of the time, a vehicle’s asking price is the single best yardstick for measuring its provenance, overall condition and rarity. Again, price guides can help, but remember that dealers use the same booklets. Also keep in mind that “guide” is the operative word; each vehicle is unique and the collector car market is as volatile as Britney Spears on a night out. When you inspect a car, just make certain it is what the dealer says it is.

No matter how and where you find a car, always remember Lyndon Johnson’s advice: “A decision is only as good as the information it’s based on.” And then remember that Johnson was the president who said that picking-up a beagle by its ears doesn't hurt it.

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12 Comments on “Car Collecting: The Weakness of Strangers...”


  • avatar
    SherbornSean

    Thank you, Terry. This article and its predecessor are both interesting and useful.

  • avatar
    philbailey

    I’m a regular visitor to Hershey. At this years auction, many cars, including a number of 60s Corvettes sold for well below their theoretical value.

    On the other hand, a 1947 Chrysler Town and Country “woody” sold for $92000 USD.

    In many cases, far more money had been spent on restoration than the car could possibly sell for.

    Credit to GM, they brought their collection of veteran and vintage cars and trucks and they were magnificent in every detail.

    If the weather is good, Hershey is worth a visit at least once, but book your hotel room NOW!

    If anyone wants pictures of this event, or a specific “voiture”, they can reach me through TTAC.

  • avatar
    willbodine

    I’ve been collecting cars since the early 80′s, mainly Lincolns, Cadillacs and muscle cars. IMHO the best cars to buy are ALWAYS the ones for sale in the back of the Club magazines: “Continental Comments” (Lincoln), “Self Starter” (Cad-LaSalle), “Smoke Signals” (Pontiac) etc. And it is ALWAYS better to buy a car that has been well cared for from new than a barn or field mouse that has had an expensive frame-off resto.

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    You make a good point Will; and one I am going to try to address in the next piece I do for TTAC. Of course, there’s another saying I have heard – at auctions, mostly but also in the pages of Keith Martin’s magazine, Sports Car Marketand that is: you can always restore it, but’s only original once. As a pal of mine in the Allard Club of America told me recently (by e-mail), “It’s like antique furniture,”

  • avatar

    I collect old cars the inexpensive way: by going to shows and photographing them (check out my website, motorlegends.com). If you’re looking for old classic cars in any condition, Carlisle PA is an absolute blast, with acres and acres of cars. The mid-October show in Rockville, MD, just outside of DC always has a lot of very beautiful classics in excellent condition, and occasionally some real oddities. I once saw a pair of Tatras. The Tatra was a Czech car which looks like how a Taurus would have been designed in the early ’50s to look futuristic. I think half of the Tatras in the US were at that show that day. Then, in 2002, the International Citroen Rally, which doesn’t even happen every year, took place in Amherst, Mass, about 90 miles from my home. I took about 150 photos.

  • avatar
    Terry Parkhurst

    I think the Tatra was influenced by Dr. Porsche’s original Beetle; both were rear-engined and air-cooled, as I recall – with exterior design that was meant to be aerodynamically sound, rather than establish any sort of particular look. The first – and last – one I ever saw was parked outside the former Seattle Center Coliseum (now Key Arena) at a McLeod Group auction, back in May 1982. (I took one shot with black-and-white film, establishing it now, as truly a vintage shot of a vintage automobile – believe the Tatra shot was a 1950 model.) Small correction to earlier comment: meant to write “but it’s only original once.” In regards to antique furniture and vintage automobiles, the term applied now to both is “patina.” One has to almost laugh sometimes, however, when the term is applied to the latter and the patina is rust, dirt and sometimes, mouse droppings.

  • avatar
    bestertester

    methinks porsche/vw stole key elements from Tatra, but i am too lazy to check the facts.

    “i’ll tell you what old cars do: they let you down.” (Russel Bulgin)

  • avatar
    rodster205

    Excellent. I have had more than enough of B&J on Speed the past few weeks and it all boils down to what you said about “it’s only original once”. Craig Jackson actually said that on the “Road Show” last night. If you are looking for an investment and/or an “as original” car that is correct.

    However, there are also a lot of us who may not really want original. Much to the chagrin of the AACA I am going to buy a cheap base model and rebuild it to my tastes probably as a stock-on-top, go-down-below resto-rod.

  • avatar
    Paul Niedermeyer

    The first aero Tatra (77) came out in 1934. At that point, the VW was still in very early prototype/concept stage. Aero concepts, based on Jaray’s work, were being explored by several designers. But there are aspects of the final VW design that do seem to have been heavily “inspired” by Ledwinka’s radical Tatra, whereas Ledwinka was probably unaware of Porsche’s early development work when he was designing the Tatra. Porsche rightfully had a great reputation, but Ledwinka was the more original/creative of the two, and not as well appreciated.

  • avatar
    Studedude1961

    What a great article! A great way for a beginner (or longtime collector) to purchase an old car is to research the individual make’s car club resources. Buying a car from an active car club member is particularly rewarding and sometimes safer than bidding on a car at auction. Most club sites on the internet (including the one I belong to..Studebaker Drivers Club) list cars and parts for sale and make a great starting out point for anyone looking for a collector car.

  • avatar

    My biggest gripe with people entering the hobby is they always join the marque club after they buy a car. You should do this before you spend any time looking. Club members usually have the best cars, often more realistically priced. And if they don’t, they always know where another one is.

  • avatar

    ddavidv is right. Your best bet is to join a group for the type of car you are looking for BEFORE you buy.

    Local car clubs are not the only source anymore either. Several marques have thriving and helpful online communities. In the Jaguar world for example, we have Jag-Lovers, a fantastic community with global reach.

    I came upon the hobby genetically, getting my old car from my father, but I’d be lost without the support of the E-type guys on Jag-Lovers.

    Nice article Terry!

    –chuck


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